Hardheadedness is a terrible thing, but life treats it persistently. For a week after the exacerbation, I gave up alcohol and fast food and honestly tried to eat normally. All the while, my mother, putting aside family quarrels, eagerly prepared diet soups and porridge for me. The result was immediate, I recovered and the discomfort in my stomach disappeared. From then on, everything went back to normal – I stopped dieting and used syrups and pills to drive out the pain.
As soon as I was back in Edik’s car, his eyes got greasy.
“Well, what about you and Inna, how did you walk her home?” the student asked impatiently.
I shook it off with a general remark. Edik tried to beat it, but ran into another one, and then he got bored, changed the subject, and told me he was getting married in a week. I didn’t care. I couldn’t understand the choice, but I recognized everyone’s right to choose. The choice is made, live with it, don’t cry.
“Where will you live? In the same rented apartment?”
“No. I have my own one room apartment, I got it from my aunt, we’ll live in it. All we have to do is fix it up and we can move in.”
“Cool! Your own apartment, great! Congratulations!” I was excited as soon as the conversation turned to a sensitive moment for me. “When will I get my own place? It’s not clear. No money. I think I’ve started earning with my father, but it’s still pocket change. I’m twenty-six years old, there’s no rush yet, I wish I could buy my own place before I’m thirty! If I do, I’ll be the happiest person in the world! Wow, my own apartment!” I thought, falling into a dream.
“Thank you,” Edik brought me back to reality.
We pulled into my yard. Silence. There was light in the sparse windows of the concrete blocks.
“How much do I owe you?” I said.
“As usual!” Edik laughed. “What your soul tells you.”
We both knew the approximate amount. I never gave less, often a little more. I paid and we said goodbye. The “seventh” crawled away, bouncing on the potholed asphalt.
“I’ll have my own place by the time I’m thirty,” I decided, ducking into the entrance hall.
Summer is over. As a bonus, the first Saturday in September was City Day. The public festivities on the main streets of the city lasted all day, and in the evening had descended into an alcoholic frenzy. The holiday was crowned with fireworks. After that, the festive avalanche rushed to the nightclubs, creating an absolute mess at the entrance of each one. Knowing this, I made my way down to “Clear Skies” at exactly 10 p.m., as the thunder rumbled and the crowd raised their heads and roared. The club was still empty. As soon as I ordered a double “screwdriver”, everything went quiet outside and the crowd rushed into the club. Ten minutes later, the solid, buzzing mass filled every corner of the club, lighting cigarettes and demanding alcohol. The dance floor rumbled. Off we go!
What a crazy night! After an hour on the dance floor, the wall mirrors were fogging up. That night, as expected, I met all the regulars of the club. I wiggled out of the maelstrom of bodies and suddenly Anya appeared beside me. I nodded at her. The girl began to talk a little affectedly to the girlfriends who surrounded her. I sipped alcohol, smoked and forced myself to listen.
“Yeah, girls, guess what, I’m getting married in a month!” I heard her voice.
I looked at Anya – I liked the girl.
“He’s all FSB type!” she said with a big smile on her face.
After a second, the human mass shook and separated me and Anya, and the girl’s happy monologue was drowned out by the music. The mood immediately soured and I felt wistful. And as if in protest, I ordered another double.
An hour later, Sanya emerged from the crowd, tipsy, sweaty, and disheveled. His face lit up with an almost childlike gaze and an equally open smile. “A happy fool, no less,” I thought, looking at the lanky, swaying figure in the unbuttoned, half-soaked shirt. Sanya shook my hand happily, and I felt uncomfortable. I hadn’t crossed the guy’s path, I hadn’t taken the girl away from him, the couple had parted on their own, but I still felt awkward in front of him, as if I had really done that. A stupid situation. Sanya continued to smile sincerely. “How did I manage to run into him?”
“Are you here alone, without Inna?” I asked him bluntly.
“Yes, I am. We broke up!” Sanya continued to smile without the slightest embarrassment.
His smile was starting to piss me off. I couldn’t figure out if he was happy that they broke up, or if he didn’t care, or if he was really stupid and that’s why he was smiling all the time.
“I know, I saw Inna, she told me,” I didn’t want to beat around the bush.
“Aah!” he smiled harder, staring into my eyes with a clear gaze.
We were both silent, so there was a ridiculous pause. A big fellow, almost two hundred centimeters tall, hovered over me, smiling. I didn’t know how to get away from him. As if sensing my condition, Sanya said goodbye, happily declared that he would continue drinking, and disappeared into the crowd. As soon as he disappeared, I realized that the guy was very drunk. It was clear that he was one of those people who, when they were very drunk, did not show any signs of intoxication, but when they drank even a little bit too much, they would fall down. There was a dangerous sign of a potential alcoholic in Sanya.
The whirlwind of the club kept me going until closing time. At three in the morning, the downtown streets were a horrible sight. There was an almost even layer of garbage: broken and whole glass bottles, plastic beer cans, cocktail tin cans, torn bags, paper food wrappers, crumpled empty cigarette packs, and so on. The contents of all this had been drunk, eaten, and smoked. But after a few minutes, the brushes of the tractors began to whirl and rake the garbage to the side of the road. Edik was nowhere to be found near the hotel, so I took a random car home. I couldn’t sleep for a long time, my head was spinning from the drinks. And when it became easier, I fell asleep and kissed a girl until I was exhausted, noticing that her lips tasted like Anya’s.
The next day I had a terrible headache and thirst. “Cigarettes were too much,” I decided, remembering the pack I had emptied during the evening and taking a pill.
At the very end of September, we bought a second kiosk in the market from the same woman. The woman had pleaded for the saleswoman, and we kept her. One look at Polina made it clear why – an unkempt, unattractive, slouchy woman of small stature and uncertain age, with a lot of hobbling on one leg and, judging by her face, sometimes drinking. She looked so pitifully at us from behind the kiosk counter that firing her would have been like leaving a kitten outside in the winter. We paid more for the kiosk this time – forty thousand. It sold less than the first one, but it was necessary for bartering goods.
The increased workload was felt immediately: instead of one request, I was now handling two; the stock for the kiosks grew; it took twice as long to assemble the goods for them in the morning. The pace of work had to increase, and here the characteristics of my father and me became more apparent. He, sensible and calm, needed a lot of time to make a decision. He thought carefully about every action. Not a bad quality, but not for quick work. With the second kiosk, there was no more time to prepare the waybills; we still had to fit in an hour and a half and leave the warehouse. Otherwise, if we were late, we would be late everywhere. My natural agility worked for both of us. To speed things up, I made almost every decision myself – I would make a well thought-out proposal, my father would simply agree, and that was it. Placing and moving the goods in the warehouse was my job. The two of us would move the goods, but I would say where and what to put. My father would just carry the boxes around and put them where I told him. He couldn’t remember what was where, so I had to prepare the batches as well. My father couldn’t remember or didn’t want to, I don’t know. But he was often confused about the goods. When I asked him to bring something, he would be silent for a while, and then he would ask me where the goods were in the warehouse. I began to tell him exactly what goods, in what quantity, and where to get them. My father would go and carry them. While he was working on one item, I managed to do three or four. After that, everything was repeated. Because of the speed at which the goods were typed, I sometimes made a mistake in quantity or missed an item or two on the waybills. The shortage was usually discovered in the evening when the kiosks were closed. My father would make a disgruntled face and blame me for packing badly, for being in a hurry again, with the result that the kiosks were left without goods and we were short some hundred rubles. I resented his complaints and we argued. Our petty quarrels became more frequent as the volume of work increased and tension grew. At first I tolerated my father’s accusatory remarks, but later I began to snap back. My father’s endless complaints about everything would try my patience.
October had begun. The warmth of summer had left irrevocably with September, and with it the carefree mood was replaced by a slight moping. It was a period of intense monotony in our work. There were no new events. The whole trade was established, and all that remained was to tirelessly move boxes of goods and earn money. The kiosks significantly increased the total profit. But the most important thing was that by the fall of 2003, I could clearly feel that people were used to us, that they reckoned with us, talked to us, and did business with us more or less on an equal footing. We had passed an important stage of establishment and recognition among our kind, and we had survived.
I had barely stepped out of the “Pelican” office building when Vovka jumped on me from behind at a run, hung on to me, pushed me off with his hands, bounced to the side and walked beside me.
“What a blockhead you are!” I said.
“Hee-hee-hee!” he grinned, pleased with his prank, and immediately yelled in my ear. “What’s up, bigwigs!?”
“All good! We have to unload, you see!” I waved the waybill in front of him.
“What did you bring, anyway!?” Vovka snatched the piece of paper out of my hands, studied it carefully for a split second, and immediately shoved it back at me. “All kinds of shit, as usual!”
I remained silent and smiled, understanding and accepting Vovka’s goofy jokes.
“All right, come on, I’ll stay with you while you unload your shit at the warehouse!” he pulled up his sagging jeans. “I’m bored at the office, nothing better to do, I busted my ass! Let’s go!”
We unloaded in half an hour. The working day was over. My father smoked his cigarette, and Vovka and I hung around the “GAZelle” as usual.
“Look, where do you always go!? What’s the name of that shithole?” he said.
“What do you mean, shithole!? It’s the best place in town! ‘Clear Skies’!”
“It’s a stupid fucking name, ‘Clear Skies’, ‘Skies’ you say! So that’s where you go!? I see what you do there, young man! You pick up girls there and fuck them, huh!?” Vovka raised his eyebrows and imitated moral severity.
“Ew, Vladimir. You talk like an animal. Where is your morality?” I fooled around, too.
“Hee-hee-hee…” he hissed with laughter. “Anyway… I’m going to visit, what the fuck do you call it, ‘Clear Skies’, and see for myself what’s what!”
“Are you going to party!?” I was surprised.
“Ramses, you are an exceptionally clever young man!” Vovka exclaimed.
“All right, all right, I’ll take you there, give you a tour!” I was ready to go as soon as my father finished smoking. “Clean your shoes and don’t forget to put on clean underwear!”
“Wow, they don’t let you in there in dirty underwear, do they!?” Vovka rolled his eyes.
“Face control! Have you heard of it? It’s very strict!” I opened the door of the “GAZelle” and entered the cabin. “They check people like you seriously.”
“So when are we going to your fucking joint?” Vovka grabbed the door and began to swing it back and forth.
“Leave the door alone!” I slapped his hand. “When you get home, you open the front door, stand on the landing, and wiggle it to your heart’s content!”
“Hee-hee-hee…” Vovka liked the joke, but he didn’t let up and grabbed me like a door. “Don’t throw me off! I asked you, when are we going?”
“Whenever, Vova! Friday and Saturday are the most crowded days there! We can do it Friday, we can do it Saturday, take your pick!” I said.
The car started.
“But when’s the best time? I don’t get it, which one of us is a professional party animal, me or you?” Vovka spread his hands and raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I just got divorced, I’m a family man, you might say!”
“You were,” I clarified, raising my index finger.
“I was,” he corrected himself.
“Well, let’s go on Saturday. I’ll call you at noon and we’ll arrange for the night.”
Vovka thought about it.
“All right! Go! Get to work!” I shoved him off in a friendly way and slammed the door.
“No, Friday would be better,” Vovka said.
“Okay, I’ll call you on Friday, at six o’clock,” I summarized. “See ya.”
“Shall we go?” my father’s voice came from the left.
I nodded. The car moved. I raised my hand and waved goodbye to Vovka. He did the same. We drove a few meters and I looked in the side mirror as usual.
“Friday!!!” Vovka shouted after us.
At nine o’clock in the evening on October 3, Vovka was already strolling clumsily at the bus stop in front of the hotel when I got off the bus. He was wearing the same clothes he wore to work – a khaki sweatshirt, dark blue frayed jeans, and worn, dusty shoes.
“Well, show me where your brothel is!” Vovka said demandingly.
“Over there,” I waved across the street, and we wandered to the crosswalk. “I wonder if Edik is working today?”
“Who’s Edik? Some kind of pimp!?” Vovka rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
“No, he’s a taxi driver,” I peered into the row of cars, looking for a familiar car, but it wasn’t there. “He’s a student, moonlighting as a taxi driver, standing over there in his banger all the time.”
“What wheels does he drive?” Vovka walked next to me in the crosswalk, unable to keep up, looking at the line of parked cars.
“A white ‘seventh’,” I said as I crossed to the sidewalk.
“What do you need him for?”
“He drives me home after the club all the time.”
“Wow, what a bigwig you are!! You already have your own driver!” Vovka almost shouted, his eyes bulging. “Look at him! Bigwig! Selling bullshit and raking in the money.”
“Oh, come on! What driver?” I felt the embarrassment of shouting. “I met him by chance, and now I always go home with him, it’s convenient.”
“Look at him!” Vovka continued. “He met a boy, some Edik! Normal men meet girls, but this one is with a taxi driver.”
“Stop it already, Vova! I just didn’t have any money, and he helped me out,” I replied, irritated by the discomfort. “Crying bloody murder… People are turning around.”
Vovka was at once embarrassed, blinked stupidly several times, blushed, buried his head into his shoulders, put his hand over his mouth guiltily, and finally shut up.
“What a jerk,” I said quietly, looking at my friend sarcastically.
“Hee-hee-hee…” he laughed.
“Oh! Cle-ar Ski-es!” Vovka spelled it out deliberately, looking mentally retarded as he stood in front of the club’s sign. “Is this your ‘Skies’!? Let’s go inside and have a look! Come on, lead the way! You’re already one of them through and through!”
“Hi,” I shook the hand of the security guard who was smoking outside the entrance.
“Well, look who decided to show up! Hiya!” he smiled and shook hands with me and Vovka. “It’s okay there today, there are beautiful girls.”
“Then we are coming!” I parodied the famous commercial and pulled the front door toward me, ducking inside, Vovka behind me.
“This door is so fucking heavy!” I heard his constrained voice behind me.
We went downstairs and headed to the bar, on the way the receptionist girl greeted me, and two security guards shook my hand. But as soon as the older woman said, “Good evening,” Vovka couldn’t help himself, he burst out laughing and said, stunned:
“Even the fucking cleaning lady knows you!”
We passed the big counter. I shook hands with the bartender and nodded to a couple of waitresses. We stopped at the small counter, the bartender shook hands with me and Vovka, and I ordered two double “screwdrivers” and took out a cigarette.
“One for me,” Vovka reached for the pack.
We both smoked. Alcohol was also ready. We each took a glass.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” I wondered.
“I just smoke off and on,” Vovka took a drag, grimacing as if he’d tasted a lemon. “I quit once, and then I started smoking again with this divorce. What’s in there?”
“The dance floor,” I replied. “It’s not crowded right now, but it’ll be packed in a few hours. Let’s go check if I see anyone I know…”
“Fuck, Ramses, every man and his dog here knows you!” Vovka almost choked. “All I do for the first half hour is say hello! My hand is fucking falling off and my head is tired of nodding.”
“Vova, fuck off, would you?!”
We went into the darkness of the dance floor, I didn’t see anyone I knew there, after a while I ran out of alcohol, and Vovka and I found ourselves back at the bar.
“Another one?” the bartender said.
I nodded and looked at Vovka’s glass, which was still half full.
“Why are you drinking so slowly!?”
“Well, I can’t drink faster! I have no experience with it,” he said indignantly. “It’s you schicki-micki who gulp down the booze by the bucket, and we peasants drink as best we can.”
“Come on, don’t cry poor,” I said, taking out my cigarettes, and Vovka bummed one again. We smoked. The club was getting crowded. I looked at the clock, it was 11:10.
“Oh, look, there are more and more people! How many girls!” Vovka was confused, not knowing what to do: drink, smoke, or turn his head.
“It’s about to start!” I nodded.
“Listen,” Vovka turned to me. “I officially declare to you that I like this place! What’s it called? ‘Clear Skies’, right!? Anyway, I’ll be a regular here from now on!”
“I told you,” I broke into a smile. “I’ll never steer you wrong.”
I turned around. Anya and her girlfriends appeared in the flow of people. Her face expressed a universal sadness and detachment. The girl pretended to be cheerful, forcing a smile, but her eyes didn’t sparkle. For some reason, I immediately thought of the wedding that didn’t happen.
“Oh! Anya’s here!” I said, nodding at her, the girl nodded back.
“Now those are boobs!!!” Vovka almost shouted in my ear, grabbed my arm and started pulling it nervously. “Look!!! Look!!! Look!!!”
I felt horribly uncomfortable at my friend’s screams, and I could feel the blush spreading from my neck to my ears. Anya approached, unable to hear Vovka’s emotions over the noise of the club.
“I’ve seen her a hundred times, why are you yelling?” I pulled my hand away. “Haven’t you ever seen boobs?”
“Ramses, just look at hers!” Vovka’s eyes popped out of their sockets.
“Vova, stop it!” I couldn’t contain my irritation. The phrase had an effect, Vovka shut up and continued to tug at my sleeve, suffering. We stared at Anya like two cats at a bundle of sausages, only we didn’t lick our lips. She stopped two steps away from us. As if on cue, the “maids of honor” surrounded Anya and began to chatter over each other. I sipped my cocktail through a straw and watched from under my eyebrows. Anya was careful not to look in my direction. I stared at her openly. Vovka grunted nervously beside me.
“Let’s go to the dance floor,” I said.
Vovka nodded, and we began to make our way through the crowd, approaching Anya.
“Hey, Anya!” I said as we passed her.
“Oh, hello!” she imitated a strained smile and joy of meeting.
“How was the wedding?” it suddenly came out of my mouth.
“There was no wedding,” she said nervously.
The magic of her charms disappeared from my sight and my interest in Anya faded.
“I see,” I slurred. The flow of people picked me up and carried me within seconds into the dark and stuffy space of the dance floor. Vovka kept up.
It was after midnight. The club was shaking. Vovka and I destroyed “screwdrivers” one by one. His eyes were spinning, stunned by what was happening. At two in the morning, the heat began to subside and the customers began to head for the exits. After half an hour, only the most resistant remained.
“They close at three, let’s leave a quarter of three, otherwise there will be a crowd on the way out, I don’t like crowds,” I said to Vovka, who nodded.
Ten minutes later, tipsy and happy, we went outside.
“It’s already chilly,” I said, shivering.
“Yeah, no fucking summer!” Vovka barked.
“Summer’s over, I didn’t even notice it while I was carrying those shitty boxes,” I said sadly. “Did you go swimming or sunbathing this year?”
“I did once,” Vovka brushed it off.
“I only bathed once too, I didn’t even get a tan,” I said sourly. “Life will go by and we won’t even notice it, just like this summer…”
We crossed the street to the movie theater.
“Well, let’s get a cab, shall we?” Vovka suggested.
“No, let’s go to the hotel, in case Edik is standing there,” I waved my hand in the direction. “Then he’ll give us a ride.”
The student was there. We piled into the back seats of the “seventh” and after meeting Edik, Vovka began to tell him about our trip to the club. His shouting filled the car and continued for several minutes. Finally Vovka ran out of steam and calmed down.
“Where are we going?” Edik interjected immediately.
“Where are you going, blockhead?” I looked at Vovka and realized that I didn’t know where he lived.
He yelled out the address.
Twenty minutes later, we slowed at a T-junction, the adjacent road leading into the darkness of the yards.
“Is this your street?” I said, looking deep into the outline of the houses.
“Maybe I should bring him closer to the house?” Edik added.
“No, that’s okay. I live nearby, it’s a hundred meters down the alley and there’s my house,” Vovka grunted and got out.
“I should probably come visit you sometime,” I said.
“Ramses!” Vovka threw up his hands. “What’s the problem!? Stop by!”
“You talked me into it, I will. All right, go to bed, I’ll see you at work,” I nodded.
Vovka said goodbye to us, slammed the door, and staggered off into the darkness of the old courtyards of the brick “Khrushchyovka” houses. Fifteen minutes later, I was home.
Late fall is always equally depressing. 2003 was no exception. The kiosks were doing well. The stock of goods allowed us to launch another outlet. There was no problem with money, we even saved fifty thousand that was no longer needed for sales. I suggested to my father that we open a third outlet, and he supported it. I wanted something more substantial than the primitive kiosks in the market – a store in a shopping mall, for example. All the existing malls were occupied, so I looked for one that was under construction, and I found one: the mall was scheduled to open at the end of the year, and tenants were being invited.
The next day we visited the developer’s office. There it turned out that only two of the smallest departments of seventeen square meters were left. We promised to think about it and went out. On the way to the “GAZelle” I felt cold and gladly climbed into the cabin. My father started the engine and turned on the heater. As soon as the cabin got warm, we both opened the windows and smoked. From the cabin, we could clearly see the entire mall under construction. A one-story rectangle of one hundred by thirty meters – a brick box without any frills – it made a mixed, even rather negative impression.
“What a stupid construction!” I said as I looked at the construction site, which was surrounded by a concrete fence. “Two inconvenient entrances, between them a wall without a single window, and the windows are just on the sides of the entrances, what are they for? And why only one floor? It’s stupid not to build at least a few more floors. And that glass top, idiocy. There’s no asphalt yet. When are they going to lay it? It’s going to snow any day now!”
“If they don’t lay asphalt before the snow, they won’t lay it in the winter either,” my father said.
“How are they going to open on time for New Year’s Eve?” I was surprised.
“It doesn’t look like they’re going to make it to New Year’s Eve,” my father said.
After we finished our cigarettes, we drove home. There, sitting in an armchair with a cup of hot tea, I went over the pros and cons of what I had seen. On the one hand, the rent in the new mall was lower than in the existing ones. On the other hand, the opening date seemed unrealistic. “And it’s kind of stupidly located, behind the road, the residential houses are on this side and the mall is on the other side of the road, will people really go there?” The pros and cons froze in my head, balanced on an imaginary scale. The desire to have my first store in a decent mall prevailed. My father and I conferred and decided to make the move.
At the end of the last week of November, we stopped by the developer’s office and agreed to sign a lease for a seventeen-meter department. My father signed it, encouraged by assurances that the mall would be open by New Year’s Eve. When we asked about the asphalt, we were told flatly that the work would start on Monday of the following week and would be done in ten days.
According to the calendar, that Monday was the beginning of winter and the first snow fell.
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